Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The Switch

My husband says, “Turn it off already!”

I tell him, “They forgot to install an on-off switch when I came off the assembly line.”

He mumbles something about the mold breaking when I fell off the conveyor belt, but soon forgives my inability to stay focused. He sees my shortcomings as a source of income.

The truth is, even if I could turn it off, I don’t know if I would.

At night when I’m in bed, my husband asks, “Are you concentrating, Felice? Are you with me? Are you here?”

I tell him I am. I wave from my corner of the galaxy.

“You’re writing in your head again, aren’t you?” he asks.

I reply, “Faster. Faster. A little to the left.”

The cop says, “Lady, do you know how fast you were going?” I don’t think it would convince a jury of my peers if the officer wrote on the speeding ticket, “Defendant said her mind was going a million miles a minute. She was developing a plot.”

In my house, food is never undercooked, cakes chew like cookies, and I never ask anyone how they want their meat cooked because I cannot guarantee results anyway.

I don’t know what the big deal is. I keep things under control. I pay bills early so they won’t be late. I never miss a deadline. I compensate for my distractions by being incredibly neurotic. My mind may be somewhere else, but my body is in the right place at the right time. I never forget a comma, but sometimes I forget directions or my makeup.

“I couldn’t help it,” I say. “I was writing.”

When my kids introduce me, they say, “This is my mom. She lives on another planet.”

Once my older son said, “This is my mom. She talks to pretend people.” Someone in Hollywood heard it, changed the quote a little and got very rich.

If the conversation is at Point A, I’m at Point K. I don’t even realize I’m doing it. I’ve been told I should pay better attention. I've also been told my segues are indicative of bad manners.

I have a friend who puts up with me. She says I entertain her. When she introduces me, she says, “Felice is somewhat circular in a semi-direct way.” She isn’t offended by my inability to stay on subject.

If you were on the perfect wave, would you stop surfing? If you found a gentle, intoxicating breeze, would you go to the indoor mall? If you were on a swing and you thought you were going to go over the top, would you stop pumping?

I have to go grocery shopping today, but first, I’m going to sit down at the computer for just five minutes. It may be five hours.

Did you say something?

Writer’s Digest Chronicle’s Winner December 2005
The Contents of these pages – including all photographs – are COPYRIGHT PROTECTED and may NOT be used or copied without the consent of the website owner and/or author/photographer.

Sunday, April 1, 2012

The Motherhood of the Traveling Norton Anthologies

My house is a mess of piles. There is the pile of stuff for our future garage sale that is still in the discussion stage because my husband says it is not worth the effort. There is the pile of stuff we are donating to Vietnam Veterans of America because no one would want to buy any of it at a garage sale. There is the pile of stuff that Vietnam Veterans of America will not want which will go to the junk collector who I have to pay to haul it away. There is the pile of my younger son’s stuff that we said we would keep until he moves out of the dorm and has an apartment of his own. There is the pile of my older son’s stuff that he asked us to store for him until he has a house with a basement. And there are piles of books everywhere.

Our two sons are both going to college and have moved out, and my husband and I are scaling down. We are not sure what we are going to do going forward, but we are officially Empty Nesters now, and we are trying to see our way through to the next phase of our lives together. If anyone asks, we are just cleaning up and clearing out.

My next-door neighbor commented that she did not think one house could hold so much stuff. She waxes toward polite and I could see she was holding her tongue, wanting to say “garbage” instead of “stuff.”

When we moved from New Jersey to Arizona twenty years ago, we paid a moving company something like $8000 to move our old piles of stuff from there to here. We already had a lot of stuff. We put it all into labeled boxes that identified into which room the stuff would be moved on moving day. If we were nothing else, we were organized. We were proud of ourselves after the first night in our new home because we had all our boxes unloaded and out at the curb for the city’s pick up service. The stuff we moved went into closets, into cupboards, into drawers, into the garage, into cabinets, and onto shelves. Some of these items, we put away and never looked at again.

Among our stuff were my husband’s and my college textbooks. I am not sure exactly why, but at that time in our lives, neither of us could part with them. Maybe it was that some of the books were among the most expensive books we had ever owned or would own, but I don’t think that was it. Maybe saving them was as a remembrance of a time gone by but not forgotten. I don’t think that was it either. We just did not want to give away our books. And it was more than our college books. There were my teaching texts, my husband’s Star Trek and real science books. There were baby books, children’s books, chapter books, adolescent books, and grown up books. There were two sets of encyclopedias and many assorted types of dictionaries. There were books that we had read and books we had bought but could never quite get into. We simply liked having a lot of books around. Originally, they sat on shelves with books of similar subjects, but eventually, the nicely stacked books had books on top of them because that’s where they fit. I also thought in the early days that perhaps someday my sons could use my books. I had been an English teacher, so it made sense to me that my textbooks and anthologies would come in handy. Maybe they could be resources. Maybe they could use the notes I had written in the margins, gems spoken by my professors or thought up by me.

Okay, I was delusional, but not as deluded as my husband who somehow thought anyone would want to look at his business course texts or his copies of The Flea, Fanny Hill, and The Adventures of Samurai Pussy Cat.

That was before computers, and the world has changed so much in what seems to me like a heartbeat.

Last week, when my son was doing his final packing for the dorm, I thoughtfully handed him my cleanest, and what I thought was, my best dictionary, to which my son replied, “Duh, Mom.” He did take his Bart Simpson’s Guide to Life and the screenplay to Monty Python and the Holy Grail, but he did not need a dictionary. On Thursday, this son sent me this text message: “$472 bks picked up fr bkstore & pd on credit card. waiting f/mon. to get eng101 texts. also got a cable f/printer & jelly beans.”

So, in the last few weeks, I’ve been creating piles, and trying to come to terms with my life as it is now.

Last night, I addressed our books.

I sat down at one of the piles. That pile had my Norton’s Anthology of American Literature, my Norton’s Anthology of English Literature, my Norton’s Anthology of World Masterpieces, and my paperback set of the complete works of William Shakespeare, and I flipped through the pages. I had not looked at any of these since the middle 1970s. In the cover of one fat book, there was a big pink heart with my initials and “loves RL.” “RL” was crossed out and “MD” was written above it. I cannot remember who “RL” or ”MD” were, but when I got to another volume, there was another heart with my initials and “SS” in it this time. There was plenty of highlighting in each text, but I had no memory of ever reading anything that had been highlighted, and I had no idea how I ever read such small print anyway. I showed my husband who said, “Get a magnifying glass.” My impressive margin notes included, “Today’s list: 1. Call Mom. 2. Get tampons & Clearasil. 3. Finish essay. 4. Buy TAB. 5. Fix flat.” On another page, there was something about Eudora Welty and then the words, “He loves me. He loves me not,” with some daisies drawn in the margins and finally the words, “HE LOVES ME!” On another page, there was an arrow to a poem by e.e.cummings with the words “very cool” written next to it. If memory serves me, and that is debatable these days, that’s the poem I copied from the Internet a few years ago and pasted into a card I gave to my son and daughter-in-law on their wedding day. There were other scribbles in other margins, but they were mostly either illegible, lists, or things about when various assignments were due. There were also more hearts and more initials.

Finally, I grew bored of looking through proof that I was an airhead 30 years ago. I am so glad I grew out of that stage of my life. I moved the books to the pile of things we are just not sure about yet, and I joined my husband on the couch. I did not want to miss a minute of Dancing with the Stars.

©2006 by Felice Prager. All Rights Reserved.

A version of this originally appeared at The Irascible Professor.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

I'm Easy!

My husband always tells people I'm difficult to buy presents for. He says he can't do anything right even when he's trying to do something special and unique. He says I don't give good hints. He says all these things about my weird taste.

There's no truth to anything he says. I'm easy. I'm so easy that EVERY husband should have a wife as easy as I am.

You see, I have a Red Jeep Wrangler. It's not my first Wrangler and it definitely won't be my last.

The Wrangler is a great vehicle. It's not a car even though the guy at the carwash charges me as if it is. It's not a truck. It's not an SUV. It's not a Mom Mobile. It's a Wrangler, and Wranglers are in a class unto themselves. Nothing else comes close to them, even though many try. In fact, even the Jeep manufactures are trying to change the specs on this classic vehicle. Unfortunately for them, the diehard Jeep owners who are considering a newer Jeep have been known to go into a dealership and ask them to put in crank windows instead of electric and to remove the new fancy features in order to bring their new Jeep back to its classic heritage. I am one of those people.

Let me tell you about my Wrangler, and with it, I will tell you how easy I am when it comes to buying presents for me.

Flashback to Valentine's Day 1998: My current Wrangler was a month old.

"Chocolate?" my husband asked.

"Gloss black grill guard," I replied. "The guy at the off-road place in the airpark knows which one I want."

Flashback to Birthday, 1998:

"Chocolate?" my husband asked.

"Deluxe sport handles and black mesh light guards," I replied. "I folded down the pages in the catalog in the bathroom. There's a coupon with a discount, too."

Flashback to Anniversary, 1998:

"Chocolate?" my husband asked.

"Front and rear slush mats," I replied. "And a black leather t-style hood bra."

The list goes on.

I'm so easy. All my husband has to do is pull into the off-road place or dial an 800 number, and my present is a done deal.

If they make it for a Wrangler, I've got it or I want it. I have dreams about light bars, side bars, air intake scoops, and safari snorkels. My husband knows this because I wake him up in the middle of the night to tell him about these dreams.

"Are you sleeping?"

"I was."

"I had another dream!"

"Let me guess. Was it about Jeep accessories?"

To put it simply, if my husband wants to buy me a present, without asking and ruining the surprise, all he has to do is buy more bells and whistles for my Wrangler. And if he's concerned about which accessory to buy, all he has to do is pay attention when I retell my dreams to him. I'm so easy.

I take excellent care of my Wrangler. My son's best friend always tells me he knows it's me in the red Wrangler coming down the road even though there are so many red Wranglers these days because he needs sunglasses from the shine. No one's Wrangler shines like mine. My 98 Wrangler could pass for brand new. If you have a cool Wrangler, it doesn't come without responsibility.

For Mother's Day last year, when he asked me what I wanted because I never give him hints or leave him lists, I told him he could wax my Wrangler. He was happy. I was thrilled. Soooo easy.

Unfortunately, my Wrangler obsession has created a monster.

My husband thought he could take our sons camping using my Wrangler. That included taking it off-road and getting it dirty.

It turned into an ugly scene. I stamped my feet and acted indignant, but he convinced me that taking his Mustang off-road was just dumb and dangerous.

"We can't do 45 degree angles in a Mustang," he said. "We'll get stuck....or killed! You wouldn't want your children killed in an off-road accident because we took a sports car instead of the appropriate 4-wheel drive Wrangler. Would you?"

So, I gave in.

When they returned, he said I "RUINED THEIR TRIP." That's in quotes because that's exactly what he said. I was home minding my own business, looking at off-road websites on the Internet, enjoying the air conditioning of my home and sipping iced tea, and I "RUINED THEIR TRIP."

It seems he was so afraid of getting my Wrangler dirty or (gasp!) scratching it, that he took the turns "like a wimp" and avoided all the "cool, macho trails" that all the other Wranglers were taking.

Which is why, a month ago, my husband traded in his Mustang for a second Wrangler. We are now officially a two-Jeep family.

His is a new, very hot color. It's this dark reddish color, but at dusk, it looks brown, and in the sun it looks plum. I forget what they called the color. It's unimportant. I think it is sienna or sierra or something like that. What is important is that my husband is happy.

He pulled his Wrangler into the garage next to mine on the day he brought it home and sang, "My Wrangler is taller than your Wrangler."

I wanted to hurt him, but I am not a violent person, so I just gave him a dirty look and said something about the color being sort of girlie.

This did not affect his mood. He and my younger son then took out the tape measure and proved it.

Two inches taller, in fact.

Of course it was; the tread on my tires has worn down. Mine is the old Wrangler. Mine is the used Wrangler. My Wrangler has been offroad. My Wrangler is in need of new tires.

My husband still looks at my Wrangler and sulks, though. In spite of his Wrangler's extra height, he still says, "You've got the cool Wrangler because you have all that neat stuff on it which I bought for you."

I've told him he'll have to wait like I did and start dressing up his Wrangler as holiday presents.

His birthday is next month. I think the first thing I'll get him a very cool aluminum front bumper I saw at the off-road place. I won't even ask him for hints. Or maybe we'll just pull into the off-road place in our separate but unequal Wranglers, and I'll let him pick out the one he wants.

And when it's my turn for the next present, I think I'll start having dreams about six-inch lift kits or roof racks. Hmmmm….a roof rack. After all, it just isn't right having both the oldest AND the shortest Wrangler in the family.


Sunday, January 15, 2012

The Math-Challenged Dieter

I received a phone call from the health and beauty reporter at a local newspaper.

"I read your essay in Chicken Soup for the Dieter’s Soul, and I thought I could get an expert quote and some feedback from you about a theory I'm researching," she said.

The essay she was referring to is cute and easy to read, and I had sold it a few times to a few different periodicals before the Chicken Soup folks sent me a contract. The article does not make me an expert. In fact, I have written a lot about the success I had dieting and have made a little pocket change from it, but it still does not make me an expert. Losing a lot of weight just gave me a reason to shop for new clothes. According to this reporter, however, being in a Chicken Soup book made me worthy of being interviewed.

What she needed from me was a quote. "I'm doing a story about how the math part of dieting makes it hard for people to lose weight if they aren't good at math. I think everything that people count from calories to steps can intimidate people who want to lose weight. I'm looking for someone who can say something about how numbers make losing weight difficult. Maybe you know someone who failed at dieting because she hated counting how many calories or carbs she was eating. Maybe someone didn't like measuring portions or weighing food."

"I don't think being good or bad at math has anything to do with losing weight," I said.

"Experts say it does," she said. "Experts in the health and beauty field say it is why so many people fail at diets. They hate math. They hate numbers. So the diets don't work!"

It's kind of scary thinking there's a group of people out there who believe that being bad at arithmetic is going to lead a person to an inevitable fate: Permanent Irreversible Fatness.
My mind started wandering, as it often does when I'm talking to silly people about silly things. I envision the new topic on news broadcasts being "PIF – Permanent Irreversible Fatness – the disease that goes after those who never learned to add and subtract without using their fingers. Details at 5!"

I returned to the regularly scheduled broadcast as the reporter continued, "They've just discovered that counting calories helps you lose weight!"

"Are you serious?" I asked her. I was referring to the "just discovered" part of her statement, but in retrospect, I think she thought it was news to me.

"If you count calories and keep your caloric intake low, according to the experts," she repeated in a new and more serious way, "a person will lose weight! If you don’t count calories, you will fail at your diet."

"That's not new," I told her.

"Well, it's a new theory," she replied.

"It's not new," I repeated.

"Well, it doesn't matter if it's new or not," she said, "because if you're bad at math, then you can't keep track of calories and you're going to be fat."

I was wheezing at this point. There's something about comments like this that sets off my asthma more than a field of pollen-producing plants. I reached for my inhaler and started scribbling down her comments because I knew there was an article in this conversation. I was thinking that sooner or later, the health and beauty experts would be pointing their fingers at math teachers across America, saying, "You are the cause of a generation of fat people. Billy is FAT because BILLY CAN’T ADD!"

"So what you're saying is that if you can't add, you will lack success in dieting?"

"Yupper, you have to be good at math to keep track of all those calories, carbs, or whatever you’re counting. That's what the experts say. If you can't keep track of sit-ups and crunches, you're doomed."

"Does it work backwards?" I asked her.

"I don't understand," she replied.

"Well if you're bad at math right from the start, does that mean you'll be fat. If you're fat, does it mean that you're predetermined to be bad at math? Is it commutative?"

"Which one is commutative again?" she asked.

I didn't answer her.

"So can I quote you?" she asked.

"I didn't say anything to be quoted yet," I said, "but if you need a quote, try this: 'I don't agree with your theory. It doesn't make sense. It's silly. Losing weight has nothing to do with being able to add or subtract or even do long division. Dieting isn't about math, it's about really wanting to lose weight. It's about not putting garbage in your mouth. It's about exercise. It's about self-control. Not math. Plus, you can buy a calculator for under five bucks if you are really mathematically impaired.'"

"Yeah, but the experts say that it's hard to remember to keep track and write everything down," she said.

"Like I said," I repeated. "If you want to lose weight, whether you have to add, write something down, or maybe keep track of how many sit ups you do, if someone really wants to, the person will figure out a way. It has nothing to do with math."

"So you don't think it’s harder to lose weight if you're bad at math? You don't think being bad at math makes a difference?"

"You can quote me on that," I said. "One thing has nothing to do with the other."

"But. I mean if you're on a diet and you want to lose weight, when you have to count all those calories, and keep track, like it makes it so hard for some people."

"Then those people can go on a low carb diet," I told her, "because all you have to do is count up to twenty at first to stay under twenty carb limit at the Induction Phase, and some of the lowest carb foods have zero carbs. Zero carbs means zero math."

My humor was wasted on her.

- - -

©2002, Felice Prager. All Rights Reserved. This blog is copyright protected. No item on this blog, including this essay or any photographs, may be used without the author's express written permission.

This essay originally appeared at the Irascible Professor - April 10, 2007.

Sunday, January 1, 2012

I Jumped the Biggest Turtle

Some of us have the eye. Some of us have the ear. Some of us have both. When we hear or see them, they give us that fingernails-across-the-chalkboard sensation. They can be found on TV, on the Internet, in advertisements, in magazines, and in newspapers. Without mentioning names, they have even been found in love letters. We who have the eye, the ear, or both vow we will not be part of it. We will strive for perfection. We take oaths in secret societies and grumble a lot. We will respect the language. We will follow the rules and not stray. We swear against the use of word shortcuts and emoticons. We will not succumb to the mass hysteria of abbreviated laziness. We will not substitute "u" for "you", "r" for "are", or "luv" for "love". We will not type "cuz", "prolly", or "w/o". Our writing will be without phrases like "CUL8er", "imho", and "brb". We will not follow the crowd. If we have to, we will stand out in the hurricane sharing the same grammar umbrella. Perhaps we will drown, get blown away, get pneumonia, or at least get very wet. So be it when the argument has grammar rules as the foundation.

My name is Felice and I am a grammarholic.

Hello, Felice.

Lately I have been getting hives because of commas and enunciation. It does not take much to set off the allergic reaction. Sometimes it can be capital letters. Sometimes it can be spelling. This time, all I needed was one innocent, unsuspecting student who mumbled, almost incoherently,

"Grammar is dumb."

"Grammar is not dumb," I replied with the same "is not" "is too" "is not" mentality I used when I was her age. Grammar criticism reduces me to my most infantile state. I pout. I kick things. I thrash around on the floor. I go off on tangents and become incoherent.

"Using proper grammar, proper spelling, and proper enunciation make a big difference in the meaning of what you're trying to communicate and how others see you," I expounded. "What you say or write is often the first impression people may have of you." An experienced educator should have known better. She would have realized that I had turned off this student right there, but I could not leave it alone. Not me! I had to pick. I had to probe. I had to turn a tiny booboo into a major wound. I had to make a point to an unreceptive audience in spite of my better judgment. With that, I continued to enlighten this puzzled pre-teen whose specialty is four-word sentences, Orlando Bloom trivia, and mascara application. I used examples which I have had stored within the minutiae of my mind forever. I suppose it's kind of like the word "minutia", a word I would have gotten right on the SATs had it come up. It did not, and for the last three decades, I have tried to throw "minutia" into every conversation about minutiae that I possibly can. This time I was using a storehouse of sentences I had collected about misplaced letters and commas.

First, I wrote this in blue on the white board. I wrote the comma in red:

Fetch the paper, boy! Fetch the paperboy!

"Do you see the difference?" I asked her.

"Fetch?" she asked. "What's fetch?"

"Don't you have a dog? Haven't you ever asked a dog to fetch something?"

"I like cats," she said. "Cats don't fetch."

I erased the sentences, and I wrote another example:

Felice was a lighthouse keeper. Felice was a light housekeeper.

"Yeah, so?" she said.

"Look at them carefully," I responded.

"I don't see the difference," she said.

I explained the difference.

She sighed and looked at the clock.

"My mother has a maid," she said. "You should get a maid."

"I can't afford a maid," I told her.

I showed her another:

I jumped the biggest hurdle. I jumped the biggest turtle.

"I don't get it," she said.

"Read them out loud to me," I instructed.

"I jumped the biggest hurdle. I jumped the biggest turtle," she quickly muttered without distinction.
They both sounded the same the way she read them.

"Enunciate the words," I instructed.

"Enunciate?" she said. "Is that like Email?"

"Pronounce the words clearly," I clarified.

"I jumped the biggest hurdle. I jumped the biggest turtle," she said again.

They both still sounded the same.

I read them to her making sure I exaggerated the words that could be confused.

"That's what I said," she whined.

"No, you didn't."

"Yes, I did."

I looked at the clock and sighed.

"Try this one," I suggested.

What is that in the road ahead? What is that in the road, a head?

"Yeah, so?" she said.

"Read them both."

She did.

"Enunciate! Pause when you see a comma," I said.

She gave me a look.

My own children often give me the same look.

I sometimes give my children that same look.

I am not allowed to give that look to my students.

"Work with me," I said. "Read the sentences clearly."

"So there's a head in the road. Big deal," she said. "Can't we do something else? This is boring."

"Life is boring," I said profoundly. "I'm trying to teach you something valuable."

"Is it time to go yet?" she asked.

"One more," I told her. "Then you can leave."

Can you see anybody there? Can you see any body there?

"They're the same," she said.

"No, they're not," I said.

"Yes, they are," she replied. "Anybody. Any body. Same thing. You're really obsessing about the same thing."

"No, I'm not," I said.

"Yes, you are," she replied. "Anybody. Any body. You're making something out of nothing."

"No, I'm not," I said.

"Yes, you are," she replied.

I think I scared her when I started to cry.

© 2004 Felice Prager